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The Involuntary Hurdles of a Voluntary Leave of Absence

By Gemma J. Schneider, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” usually runs on alternating Tuesdays.

Nina Skov Jensen’s leave of absence from Harvard in February 2022 was, on paper, an informed, voluntary choice. Yet, only months after the decision was finalized, Jensen — now over 3,500 miles away from the College — looks back at the entire process as an experience painted by discrete degradations of her autonomy.

After seeking support from University administrators to navigate a set of then undiagnosed physical symptoms, Nina was advised via email to consider a leave of absence. The email stated that Harvard made the leave process “quite easy.” While it mentioned in passing the need for “consultation and clearance” after the leave, it also hinted at the prospect of a swift return, going as far as noting that Nina would have the opportunity to “block with friends” when she came back to Harvard. But nowhere in the text — nor, for that matter, in the subsequent exchanges that I managed to track down — was there any detailed account of the gap sitting between these two junctures.

Just two days after the incomplete initial email, Nina was on a flight home to Denmark.

Five days later, Nina received the first of many surprises from the University in the form of a succinct, one-line email with six pages of attached documents. Through them, she learned that the Administrative Board had assigned her a University Health Services rider, a collection of requirements, both personal and medical, that must be completed in order to return to campus. Embedded within these conditions was a work requirement of at least six months, as well as word of a slew of procedural obstacles which would precede her re-entry to the College. Later, she was also charged 25 percent of tuition for her one-week stint of a semester.

This mismatch between the communication which preceded Nina’s leave and that which came to her once she was already across the globe is not just disorienting, but presents a misleading and disempowering dynamic; a seeming snatch at students’ agency and means to make informed choices about their academic and health trajectories, and the way in which they converge.

“I like to think of it as me signing a contract without knowing any of the terms,” Nina wrote in an email.

Through such small withholdings of knowledge, and subtle informational omissions like these, the University subtly undermines students’ capacity to entirely understand the agreements into which they are entering upon their departures from the College.

Such omissions might not be the formal rule when it comes to informing students about the particular details of their leave of absence from the College. But they’re hardly rare exceptions either: A student who I spoke with last month on the condition of anonymity told me that they only learned of the requirements and demands of the return process — some of which, like the UHS work requirement, required months of pre-emptive planning — after her mother stumbled upon the guidelines during a spontaneous online perusal. Nikki M. Daurio, who first declared a mental health-linked leave of absence from the College in fall 2016, alleges that she received word of her UHS rider in the mail an entire month after this declaration. If not for serendipitous happenstance, this late retrieval of news would have completely tarnished Nikki’s plans for a timely return: She alleges that she was presented with a seven month-long work requirement only six months before her desired return date; a problem that was rendered null only because Nikki had independently begun volunteer work over a month prior to this news.

These early communicative lapses begin to chip away at the prospect of a timely and smooth return to campus. But as the process progresses, these quiet obstructions not only begin to pile up, but evolve, transmuting into barriers that are more overt — and more disruptive — in tenor.

“It’s the easiest thing to leave Harvard,” Nikki reflected. “But it’s the hardest thing to be let back in.”

Nikki’s petitioning process for a return – which took place after eight months of therapeutic work recovering from a period of depression – is in fact emblematic of the questionable and counterintuitive character of the College’s mountainous barriers to re-entry. In a mandatory phone interview with HUHS on January 4, 2017, Nikki learned that she would not be able to attend her wintersession classes on their stated start date of January 14th. But Nikki alleges that no mention was made of any date upon which she could — or could not — return to campus.

Yet after Nikki settled onto campus on January 14 — and did not attend her wintersession class as directed — she was flagged for an additional review; under the premise that, by arriving on campus on this date, she had violated the conditions of her return.

At the meeting which followed this notice, Nikki’s January 14 return to campus was construed as a sign of instability — and, she alleges, so were her subsequent tears: “Yes I cried during our meeting today, but that is not a sign of instability or weakness,” Nikki wrote in an email to the administrators whom she had met with on that day.

It may be impossible to know the precise words spoken — or the specificities of the exchanges that transpired — within the walls of this private administrative meeting. But the meeting was a veritably unfriendly gesture; not a form of outreach, but instead a nebulous challenge.

Such challenges ultimately present themselves as a stab at, rather than a source of, student success — and this unsupported feeling doesn’t seem to slip by the students that they reach.

“I want to succeed," Nikki wrote in the same email following that mid-January meeting. “I can succeed, and I am determined to do it with or without your support. But it would be a lot more enjoyable with your support, so please allow me to move forward.”

From a bird's eye view, the clash between Harvard’s actual leave of absence procedures, and the student dialogue surrounding them, presents something of a puzzle: While only one percent of Harvard College leave of absences are involuntary, students have long complained that the leave of absence process is unyielding, and ridden with coercion.

Through the years, these individual student impressions begin to coalesce – piling up to create a well-fortified, heavily stacked divide with University administrators and HUHS staff on one side, and vulnerable students on the other. The lens through which each actor looks at each other is changed by the leave of absence process. Students look through the glass and see an administration that seems not to understand them — and also seems to have little interest in fostering these understandings. At the same time, HUHS and the University, guided too heavily by technical print and too sparingly by unadulterated thought, seem to view each student as an on-paper personality at best — and as a liability, or a potential problem, at worst.

At Harvard, administrative attempts to resolve this mistrust often start with a gesture towards these basic metrics — the tacit insinuation being that these particular fears are grounded in the exaggeration of procedural rarities.

The real resolution to this fragmented mosaic, though, is not a nudge towards the numbers — but instead, through active recognition that departure is not the only stage of the leave of absence process that can become tainted by coercive, confusing moves; and by seeking to alter the aging, souring patterns of action that University metrics and aggregations do not reflect, but which have, for years, served to push students away.

Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” usually runs on alternating Tuesdays.

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